Penile cancer

Penile cancer is a rare type of cancer that occurs on the skin of the penis or within the penis. See your GP as soon as possible if you have the symptoms below. It's unlikely they'll be caused by penile cancer, but they need to be investigated.

Symptoms of penile cancer

Penile cancer most commonly affects men over the age of 50. You should be aware of any abnormalities or signs of penile cancer, including:

  • a growth or sore on the penis that doesn't heal within four weeks
  • bleeding from the penis or from under the foreskin
  • a foul-smelling discharge
  • thickening of the skin of the penis or foreskin that makes it difficult to draw back the foreskin (phimosis)
  • a change in the colour of the skin of the penis or foreskin
  • a rash on the penis

When to see your GP

If you experience these symptoms above, it's important to see your GP as soon as possible. It's unlikely they'll be caused by penile cancer, but they need to be investigated.

Your GP will ask you about any symptoms you have and when they occur. They'll also examine your penis for signs of penile cancer.

If your GP suspects penile cancer, they may refer you to a specialist for further tests. This is usually a urologist, a doctor who specialises in conditions that affect the urinary system and genitals.

Any delay in diagnosing penile cancer could reduce the chances of successful treatment.

Causes of penile cancer

The cause of penile cancer isn't known, but certain risk factors can increase your chances of getting it, including:

  • carrying the human papilloma virus (HPV) – there are more than 100 types of HPV; some types cause genital warts
  • age – the condition rarely affects men under the age of 40 and is most common in men aged over 50
  • smoking – chemicals found in cigarettes can damage cells in the penis, which increases your risk of getting penile cancer
  • having phimosis – when the foreskin is difficult to retract, the chances of developing infections like balanitis increase; repeated infections are linked to a higher risk of developing some types of penile cancer as they can weaken your immune system

Treatment for penile cancer

If you are diagnosed with penile cancer, the health professional looking after your care will discuss treatment options with you.

Treatment will depend on the size of the affected area and the rate at which the cancer has spread.

The main treatments for later-stage penile cancer are:

Surgery involves removing the cancerous cells and possibly some of the surrounding tissue.

In most cases, any physical changes to your penis after an operation can be corrected with reconstructive surgery.

As with most types of cancer, the outlook for individual cases depends largely on how far the cancer has advanced at the time of diagnosis.

Preventing penile cancer

It isn't always possible to prevent penile cancer, but you can reduce your chances of getting it.

One of the main ways you can help reduce your chances of developing penile cancer is to stop smoking if you smoke.

It's also important to maintain good penis hygiene. This is to prevent the bacterial and viral infections that can increase the risk of penile cancer.

This is easier if you were circumcised as a child, but there are steps you can take if you haven't been circumcised.

Simple penis hygiene can include:

  • using condoms to reduce the risk of catching HPV
  • regularly washing your penis with warm water, including under the foreskin

There's little evidence to suggest that being circumcised as an adult will reduce your chances of developing penile cancer.

But if you have sores that don't heal or it's becoming increasingly difficult to clean under your foreskin, seek advice from your GP about the possibility of circumcision.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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